EW’s Whitney Pastorek recently pronounced Nashville Star better than American Idol. Assuming the show’s shine — seemingly buffed by Nashville‘s move to NBC from USA for its sixth season — doesn’t wear off next week, I might just agree with her. Before we break down the Top 12 contestants (pictured, from left to right, Coffey Anderson, Gabe Garcia, and Justin Gaston), let’s examine what the show did right in last night’s two-hour premiere:
1. Limited the bad auditions to one montage: Because really, if you’ve seen one delusional wannabe say, "That’s fine, because you know what? I’m a star in my own mind," you’ve seen ‘em all. Also, judge John Rich, of Big & Rich, telling a Weezer-lookin’ guy that "There is a very good chance that someone would beat the crap out of you on the Grand Ole Opry" is funny — once.
2. Made you believe that the judges actually care: Forget, for a moment, the ridiculous pyrotechnics used in the judges’ entrance on the main stage, and think back to the clip of Jewel, Rich, and songwriter Jeffrey Steele (Rascal Flatts’ smash "What Hurts the Most") weeding the 50 semifinalists down to the Top 12. Jewel stopped contestant Charley Jenkins mid-song: "Your voice is really tight, and I can’t tell if it’s ’cause you can’t sing or ’cause you’re choking yourself." Rich pulled out his guitar and suggested Jenkins change his tune. He made the cut. Also, starting next week, each judge will serve as a mentor to one group of contestants (solo artists, duos, and trios). That’s awesome.
3. Didn’t cut to commercial once the elimination process had begun. Granted, host Billy Ray Cyrus spent more than a few seconds in silence to build the suspense, and Jewel, who had the deciding vote in which of the bottom two would be the first to go home, took more time to make her choice than Sophie, but no cruel commercial break. (After that first cut, eliminations will now be determined by viewers’ votes.)
4. Casting. This is Nashville Star’s most diverse group of contestants, on many levels.
After the jump, we dissect the Top 12.
• Pearl Heart: The trio from Florissant, Missouri was the first to take the stage following the group sing of "Life is a Highway" — why was Jewel playing her guitar at the judges’ table, they didn’t have one in the house band? — and a performance/pep talk from Taylor Swift. Sisters Angela, 21, Amy 21, and Courtney Krechel, 17, have been singing together for 10 years; their parents moved them to Nashville to chase their dream. They performed the Dixie Chicks’ "Wide Open Spaces," which was a solid but obvious choice. I agree with Jewel that Courtney needs to embrace her role as frontwoman. Not to go all Simon, but I found their performance forgettable.
• Tommy Stanley: The 22-year-old Navy man, who works as an engineer on the USS Kitty Hawk, emerged from the show’s first all-military casting call. (As Cyrus said, "Nobody knows more about the American dream than those that fight to protect it.") He sang what I imagine would be a Jason Castro rendition of Marc Cohn’s "Walking in Memphis" — if Castro had taken speed. His nerves made Rich nervous, but once he calms down, he should be fun to watch. And Melora Hardin from The Office seemed to enjoy him. (I love that she got panned to twice during the night. And both times they labeled her, as if to say, Look! Star!)
• Shawn Mayer: A proud 21-year-old Redneck Woman from May City, Iowa (pop. 45), who works at a hog farm, is a part-time mechanic and a volunteer fireman, and left her boyfriend in the Midwest to pursue her passion. She’s country, y’all! I thought she’d be Rich’s kind of woman (he writes and produces for Gretchen Wilson), but he did not love her rendition of Janis Joplin’s "Piece of My Heart," saying it was as though she was singing in a bar and not on TV for prizes that include a Warner Bros. recording contract, a tour, a performance slot at the 2008 Summer Olympics, and a Toyota Tundra truck. If she takes Jewel’s advice and shows more vocal range, she could stick around for awhile.
• Third Town: This male trio from Las Vegas — Toni, 35, "Little Toni," 29, and Jeff, 37 — has been together for 14 years, and somehow chose the Oak Ridge Boys’ "Elvira" for the most important performance of their lives. I love that song (my sister and I used to perform it all the time in the kitchen at my grandparents’ farm), but I’m with Steele: It takes me right to a county fair. The judges couldn’t hide the WTF expressions on their faces, which were amusing. Almost as funny was Toni trying to tell Rich that the group doesn’t have a lead singer after he paraded around the stage workin’ it like an incredibly cheesy one. Rich says they need a defining voice, and it should be Little Toni. Jewel’s concerned about making the group relevant, and he’s the most modern with that punk hair. Plus, I really liked his "Elvira baby" falsetto run.
• Coffey: It’s pronounced Coff-a, and you should go ahead and learn that now because he’s here to stay. When you hear the 28-year-old single dad from Bangs, Texas sing, it’s like Craig David has gone country. His licks are that smooth. Anyone else feel like the judges’ fight over whether he was pitchy on "Drift Away" seemed a little staged? When Jewel questioned Steele’s assessment, Rich, who co-produced Jewel’s new country album, Perfectly Clear, butted in with, "We just made a record together. You’re slightly pitchy yourself." She snapped back, "You know what John Rich, if you could hit half the notes I can hit, you could freakin’ talk to me. You no-singin’ son of a gun. You’re gonna talk. My lord. You have like [a] one-octave range, and you’re gonna tee off on me?" Maybe it’s just a play-argument they’ve had many times before, and that’s why their retorts sounded canned.
• Laura & Sophie: The best friends from Ohio scared me a little when they walked down the steps at the start of Tammy Wynette’s "Stand By Your Man," particularly 18-year-old Laura, who clung to the railing incase she tripped in her cowboy boots. But they were one of my favorite performances. Jewel said they need to sing more to the audience than to each other, but I think they just need a balance: I found 16-year-old Sophie’s little looks at Laura ("When nights are cold and lonely") adorable. This was proof that a classic song that could sound karaoke (like, when I’ve done it), can be covered well. Their voices are there — now comes the stage presence.
• Gabe Garcia: If there was any doubt that Rich really, really wants to find a Hispanic country artist (he crowned Julio Iglesias Jr. winner of his CMT reality show Gone Country), all you needed to see was him mouthing "Thank you! Thank you, God!" after Garcia broke out into George Strait’s "All My Ex’s Live in Texas." Rich went a little overboard, in my opinion, when he grabbed Jewel and started dancing (though it is a great dancin’ song). But at least he admitted that the likable 28-year-old former electrician from Lytle, Texas, did sound nervous and would need to get a handle on that. The judges clearly have their eyes on him: Steele wants to crease his Wranglers and starch his shirt; Rich all but told him he’d take him into the studio whether or not he wins because his voice is "pure, pure, pure, great country music." I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next.
• Alyson Gilbert: We know she’s 28, has a supportive husband, and studies animal science, but do we know if she actually has a pageant background? I thought for sure once she was in the final two, she was a goner. But although Jewel said she sold her cover of Sara Evans’ "Suds in the Bucket" like a Miss Tennessee, only Rich voted to send her home. Personally, I think Steele, who compared her to Martina McBride, was blinded by her gorgeous red hair and striking blue eyes (which matched her sequined tank top). Rich, however, just claimed Steele was deaf. Ha. Gilbert does have a nice voice. We’ll see if one of the judges can show her how to sell it.
• Ashlee Hewitt: Okay, this really annoyed me: How did none of these otherwise insightful judges mention that sweet, 20-year-old Ashlee of Lancaster, Minnesota (pop. 363) sounded like Jewel’s Mini-Me singing Colbie Caillat’s "Bubbly?" She looked like it, too, when she crinkled her nose. The judges did manage to point out that Ashlee, one of 13 children whose father was recently deployed to Iraq, has a simple sincerity about her — which is something the other solo women in the competition lack. They want her to do a song next week that shows off what she can do vocally, which means it could be sink or swim time for her.
• Charley Jenkins: Like Rich, I was really pulling for this seemingly stand-up guy, who ultimately got the boot. The 29-year-old cowboy from Roosevelt, Utah, sang Tim McGraw’s "I Like It, I Love It," working his way through the audience. It was a bold move that, unfortunately, neither the judges’ nor I bought. As Rich said, "I like you a lot. And I like your voice a lot, when you’re not running around like you’re a Garth Brooks impersonator in Las Vegas…" He should have done something slow, and poured that genuine emotion he emanated when he spoke of his late father into it. I would be surprised if he doesn’t hear from some country producers today.
• Justin Gaston: Good lord, this boy is the cutest thing on television right now. I mean, seriously, Paula Abdul would faint if she saw him. I wonder how far he’ll make it…. He’s a 19-year-old self-proclaimed "Mama’s Boy" from Pineville, Louisiana, who supports himself in L.A. by modeling part-time. He could have a rabid David Cook-like following, if he had the pipes to back it up. Jewel and Rich praised his bold song choice, Train’s "Drops of Jupiter," which seemed like they were reaching. His voice wasn’t bad, it just wouldn’t be at all noteworthy if it wasn’t coming out of that mouth. Jewel said, "When you look that good, you’re gonna have to sing that much better." I suppose that’s true for a male country artist. But I just think he has to sing well. Maybe he was nervous. I think he’ll benefit most from the mentoring.
• Melissa Lawson: Something fishy happened when Cyrus introduced her: He said "We’ve seen eight incredible performances," when, unless he’s playing fourth judge, he should have said we’ve seen 11. Oh well. The 32-year-old Texas mother of five closed the show with Bonnie Raitt’s "Something to Talk About," another dangerous tune that could turn karaoke if performed by an amateur. But Lawson is definitely not that. Her voice is powerful and so is her stage presence. But again, I think the judges were slightly excitable: she had Steele dancing in and out of his chair with both his arms raised, Rich mimicking demur little booty slaps, and Jewel comparing her stage moves to those of Mick Jagger. I found her a little over-the-top, but she’s still my favorite of the solo women.
So, there you have it. Who are your early favorites? Who will be the next to go? Who thinks this show is better than American Idol? And who can’t believe Billy Ray actually used the phrase "far out?"